Quick - what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word “enduring”? Okay, now, what image pops into your head when you think of the word “relevant”? Are they the same image or different?
For men obsessed with the Roman Empire (which, according to the recent meme, is every man over the age of 25), you might associate “enduring” with ancient Greece or Rome. The Parthenon, the Colosseum. Signs of strength that weather the environments around them.
But this often stands in stark contrast to the images of “relevance” — because relevance is a moving scale, a sliding window, that changes with the culture and times. To be relevant, you have to be pliable.
Exactly this juxtaposition — these two competing ideals — is what makes building a generational brand so challenging. For a brand to catch hold, it has to first be profoundly modern and of a specific time for a specific group of people. But for it to endure, it has to be malleable enough to adapt to the times; or, conversely, it has to adapt the culture to fit its own ideals.
If you’re the sort who really gets into Greek philosophy, you might have heard the saying “the only constant is change," which is often attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, but what does he know about enduring brands? They didn’t have AI, spatial computing, or the mobile web in Greece in 500 BC. If we’re so accustomed to change, why do we feel a sense of loss when a luxury house like Yves Saint Laurant rebrands or Aunt Jemima becomes The Pearl Milling Company? Or, why do we take nostalgic satisfaction when baking a Betty Crocker cake or wearing a Pendleton sweater? Our perception of what makes a brand important is much more complex than merely enduring societal changes or adapting to the times. Brands simultaneously reflect myriad societal values and cultural norms, which can lead to mixed signals and are often contradictory.
There are many paths to finding cultural relevance, and today, we will explore four classifications of brands that have found ways to endure: Modernist Brands, Ingredient Brands, Generational Brands, and Cultural Brands. Each brand class has a developed evolutionary armor that allows them to persist and endure, making them what they are today.
Today, in partnership with our friends at Nebulab, we’re going to examine how brands become cultural fixtures, the different ways that they persist through changing times, and how modern brand builders at the beginning of their journey can learn from these insular case studies to build a cultural brand of their own.
Ingredient Brands: Overlooked and Unseen Influence
The defining characteristic of an Ingredient Brand is when the inclusion of that brand extends a halo of quality, craftsmanship, trust, or durability to the host. These are brands that are practically invisible to consumers but, over time, become subconscious decision factors when considering a new and unique brand.
Examples include Vibram or GORE-TEX; both are ever-present in enthusiast outdoor communities as markers of quality and durability.
These brands achieve their status by their omnipresence — “it’s seemingly everywhere, and always has been,” one might say. But how’d they get there? There is often a culturally viral moment that acts as a catalyst.
GORE-TEX had this moment in the 1990s when it was at the center of a plot on the hit comedy Seinfeld. Vibram’s “five-finger” running shoes had its own viral moment in the 2010’s. Over time, virality fades into recognition, which allows a quality product to become a marker of trust.
Because they provide meaningful uplift to a partner brand as a sign of quality, these recognizable ingredient brands command a premium for their products in the marketplace.
Ingredient brands like YKK Zippers are often featured in user advice columns online. One such community is r/onebag, a subreddit of over 700,000 members who have committed to reducing their carbon footprint through minimalism and investment in durable goods. “There's a school of thought that if a manufacturer is cutting costs on something like zippers, what other cuts are they making?” explains user u/darq_at. “YKK zippers were used in the spacesuits that went to the moon in 1969,” writes Josh Centers, a columnist for a doomsday prepper blog, The Prepared.
From THX and Dolby in high-end consumer audio to Intel processors (“Intel Inside”), ingredient brands are an important part of the complex makeup of our brand landscape, and an important part of the decision-making process for a consumer.
Because ingredient brands also have an important reputation to uphold, they hold their partners to high standards, often declining to work with the newest upstarts in favor of maintaining a few prestigious partners. This is a virtuous cycle of trust with the customer where they extend their familiarity with a known ingredient brand onto your brand.
Modernist Brands: The Flash Phenomena
Because they are born of the current moment, Modernist brands have a built-in advantage in responding to and shaping immediate consumer trends and desires. In the current age, the modernists are often channel innovators. In prior eras they may have been referred to as DTC brands, or eCommerce brands; today, social commerce channels like TikTok may be the nascent channel for the Modernists.
Modernist brands are usually founded and run by a team that reflects the demographics and firmographics of the target market and the desirable consumer. While decisions in a modern brand, especially a DTC brand, are mostly guided by data, these brands begin their lives by solving a problem or addressing a need that was based on personal experiences, intuition, or professional expertise.
The Modernists often have ambitions to disrupt the status quo. By seeking to displace an incumbent they take on the role of an underdog.
However, they often can be sidelined by the distraction of new and interesting sways of culture. Because the brand has little inertia and little corporate history to fall back on, the brand leaders often feel pressure to chase relevancy. This can result in a rapid expansion that over-diversifies the corporation — too much, too soon.
Future Commerce has described this type of blitz scaling as the cause of “soul delay.” Soul Delay is a concept popularized by William Gibson in his seminal short story Pattern Recognition:
“Soul Delay” can lead to customer dissatisfaction, disengagement, defection, and reduced differentiation and profitability. Therefore, DTC brands must constantly monitor and adapt to the changing cultural landscape and find ways to maintain their relevance and authenticity.
Modernist consumers are driven by the desire to express their individuality, experiment with new products and experiences, and stay ahead of the curve. Modernist-focused brands cater to these needs by creating distinctive brand identities, often leveraging social media and influencer marketing to build trust and loyalty. For example, Glossier, the successful DTC beauty brand, famously started as a personal blog by its founder, Emily Weiss, who shared her recommendations and insights with fellow Millennials. By using data gleaned from daily interactions with customers, Glossier developed a line of products that reflected the needs and preferences of its community and used social media platforms and influencers to promote its brand and engage with its customers.
But this isn’t always the case; sometimes a strength over-extended becomes a weakness. Because of their tight integration into their communities, Modernist brands may be more susceptible to chase fads and trends; or build products that meet that momentary market needs. Henry Ford famously summed up this phenomenon with his oft-cited quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Because the modernists are trying to capture demand quickly, they seek to remove customer objections. This means that they often parrot the behavior of other modernist brands.
Whatever works for one brand may be assumed to be a form of playbook or best practice. In “The Beauty and The Beast,” Nebulab’s Chief Strategist Alessandro Desantis theorizes that it’s this sameness that provides comfort and familiarity for the consumer but leaves them without unique brand differentiation:
While chasing experience design best practices, Modernist brands may capture potential customers' attention and interest. But loyalty is fleeting. Trends are often difficult to predict, ephemeral, and superficial, and long-term consumer behaviors are usually influenced by, but not necessarily patterned after short-term trends.
Generational Brands: The Nostalgic Connect
For a brand that has had the good fortune to be part of one’s childhood or to become part of a routine or tradition, our old friend Nostalgia helps to carry that brand forward into the future. Like other familial traditions, brand preferences are handed down from generation to generation.
As a result, nostalgic brands benefit from stability and security over cultural whimsy. In “A Mental Model for Generational Impact” (September 2023), we explained that a Generational Brand is usually one that is rooted in nostalgia because, at some point in time, the brand found it unnecessary, unprofitable, or undesirable to change with the times. The fate of a generational brand is to obtain an equilibrium with the culture it inhabits.
The generational brand operators are set in their old ways and are often late adopters of new technologies, sales channels, and innovations. Because of this, they’re desirable logos to win for a new technology company or services agency.
To become a generational brand, you must have sustainable economics, meaning that the most enduring brands are usually part of a larger conglomerate, holdco, or private equity firm; all models which seek to increase efficiency by reducing redundancy across business units.
Sharing resources across a portfolio of brands gives a conglomerate leverage in a market. They have greater control over their suppliers and better relationships with their distributors, which reduces the threat of competition and further entrenches the generational brand into our collective psyches.
As social psychologists Tajfel and Turner originally formulated in the 1970s, Social Identity Theory may explain our preferences and biases for certain brands and their aesthetics. Brands chosen by our forebears do more than linger in the backs of cupboards; they shape the contours of our self-perception, becoming markers of where we come from and who we are. To change the brand is to distance ourselves from that feeling of familiarity, which may explain why a brand refresh is a risky move.
But our collective memory isn’t always accurate. The Mandela Effect is often at play for brands we recognize but have little direct contact with. For instance, do you know the name of the popular adult diaper brand? Did you say Depends? Are you so sure of that? The brand owned by Kimberly-Clark is called Depend.
Our memory, both individually and collectively, is not always as accurate as we’d like to believe. Nostalgia is a powerful, but often imprecise, tool for the generational brand. Ana Andjelic, the sociologist and marketer responsible for the revivals of brands like Banana Republic and ESPRIT, has a salient point on the matter in her newsletter, The Sociology of Business:
Nostalgia works only as a first step in the brand revival. It is a short-term tactic to remind and delight, and after it, a brand needs to move on. Otherwise, a brand is in danger of getting stuck in a its glory days while the world, culture, and consumers all move on.
Cultural Brands: The Centuries-Long Impacting Force
Brands that sympathetically change the culture and are changed by the culture are known as Cultural Brands. A hallmark in the current era is a generational brand with an owned retail strategy. Relevant, modern examples include M&M, Prada, and C & J Clark’s.
These brands have become profoundly modern and resisted becoming stodgy or outdated while holding onto their nostalgic roots. The unifying factor of all of the brands in this section? They’ve all been in business for more than a century.
In “Rise of the Cultural Brand”, Nebulab Chief Strategist Alessandro Desantis makes the argument that this form of commerce is transcendent art:
Whether we like it or not, that makes commerce the most accessible and democratic form of art. By buying things—and we’re using that word in the broadest possible sense—we are simultaneously participating in a communal experience and imprinting ourselves onto the world. And we’re all doing this, every week, many times a week.
By engaging with cultural brands, consumers participate in a communal experience that transcends the mere act of purchasing. Cultural brands ascend to icons — they’re the logos we wear and the personalities that we assume. This is why Radio Shack’s failed rebrand to “The Shack” was the butt-end of a joke in the 2010s, but the “de-sexualization” of the Green M&M was called a “sign of the cultural times.”
These brands become the canvas on which individuals paint their identities, and in doing so, they foster a democratic form of art that is accessible to all. The cultural brand marks the universality of pleasure, desire, and aspiration. Ideally, the cultural brand shapes what these are from generation to generation.
The generational brand has to remain innovative to achieve “cultural brand” status. The core product may not change over time, but the halo of the licenses, partnerships, marketing channels, and sales channels allow consumers to continually recontextualize the brand. Oreo cookies may have begun their life in 1908 with very few changes in the intervening 120 years, but their 2020s partnerships with celebrities like Lady Gaga and K-Pop group Blackpink modernize our brand perception. This is the core difference between it and its nearly identical U.K. competitor, Hydrox.
Experimentation allows the cultural brand to stay relevant while providing sufficient cover for missteps. Consumers won’t soon forget the Bored Apes fascination from footwear brand Adidas, but they’ve already forgotten the “beer.eth” NFT sale from Budweiser. Generational brands experiment as a form of marketing, needing to extract earned media out of their otherwise stingy marketing budget. Cultural brands allow their experimentation efforts to loom low on the cultural Richter scale, using it as a form of community engagement, and hands-on learning.
Innovation in new channels is vital for the cultural brand. Rather than adopting new sales channel opportunities, they look forward to the future at the next wave. Brands like C & J Clark’s are futureproofing not only by building best-in-class DTC eCommerce efforts but also by building within gaming platforms like Roblox, where the next generation of consumers are forming their future tastes and preferences.
This penchant for innovation must be a core competency and history of the brand’s identity and a key differentiating factor between the generational stalwarts and the cultural brand tastemakers.
It is a Cultural Brand's unique and remarkable ability to endure and evolve with society.
This balance of adaptation and preservation underscores a fundamental truth: brands endure not just by mirroring the culture but by becoming an integral part of it. A brand evolves by absorbing the zeitgeist of its era, adapting to technological advancements, and responding to the shifting sands of consumer preferences. In doing so, they often shape our identities, values, and aspirations, transcending their commercial origins to become cultural icons.
So, what are some practical ways for brand leaders to stay ahead of the curve, to see around the next corner? How does a CMO or CTO help to shape the culture through their work inside a brand?
Firstly, subscribe to cultural commerce commentary by leaders in the ecosystem. Free resources exist, like Nebulab’s newsletter or Future Commerce’s culture magazine for commerce futurists. Or, listen to the +25 best eCommerce podcasts in a list curated by Future Commerce from cultural, generational, and ingredient brand leaders. By taking in new perspectives and researching other brand leader’s experiences, you can widen your perspective of what’s new and what’s next.
Additionally, engaging directly with consumers through social media platforms and community forums can provide invaluable insights into evolving trends and preferences. This direct line of communication allows for a more agile and responsive approach to brand evolution. Encourage innovation within your teams; foster an environment where new ideas are welcomed and actively sought. This encourages a shared ethos of continuous improvement and adaptation.
Remember, the most enduring brands are those that do not just react to changes in the market or technology but anticipate and lead these changes. They are not afraid to experiment, take calculated risks, and redefine themselves to stay relevant and resonant with their audience. It's about striking the right balance between maintaining a core brand identity and evolving to meet the changing needs and desires of the market.